Saturday, January 16, 2021

Adult civics

 Since the infamous Capitol Shtup of 1/6/21 I've seen -- and supported -- numerous calls for a return to the teaching of civics in our schools. At the same time, however, my own experience of being taught the subject tells me that what we need is not so much the *teaching* of anything, but the *doing* of something that requires us to act for the common good.

In part this is because my experience in school has made me skeptical that the mere offering of mature subject matter to adolescents of 14 is a recipe for success. This is not a knock against adolescents of 14. A few of them would no doubt get fired up and, later in life, remember the experience as absolutely formative. I sense, though, that those few will be few indeed. I was a good and dutiful student in all of my subjects, civics included. But the only thing I remember from that class is a poetry recitation contest that kept getting me voted up in the competition with my (cheesy?) rendering of Walt Whitman's O Captain! My Captain! all the way to a final with classmate Barry Miller of blessed memory whose poem I don't remember but think it was maybe something by Longfellow or O.W. Holmes. Who won? I don't remember that. Probably Barry? Cheese works a lot better on pizza than on poetry. I just remember a feeling of brotherhood with Barry for allowing ourselves to embarrass ourselves so epically. This was 1968. Shall I say understatedly that grandiose, hoary patriotic poetry with extra cheese wasn't real hot among ninth graders in the spring of that year? (Prague Spring, Tet Offensive, MLK Jr. assassination, Born to Be Wild, etc., and let's not forget Gary Puckett and the Union Gap's Lady Willpower.)

It's not the subject of civics itself that's the problem, though. The harvest of "head learning" depends greatly on individual focus and desire. My "come to Jesus" experience in this matter was scoring best on AP tests in a subject I'd never taken a class in, but instead was self-taught through wide reading and intense interest.

There are undoubtedly manifold ways of making the teaching of civics more effective, but they all suffer from the same weakness: they start and end at the instruction of adolescents. Our problem these days isn't adolescents not learning about civics. It's adults not doing civics.

There too, the problem isn't that we're not asking adults to do things. We do ask them. Most importantly we ask them to volunteer to do things to help their communities. And many, many give of their time (the most valuable asset we all possess) above and beyond what might reasonably be expected. I know several such people who build houses, serve on nonprofit boards, collect books for library fundraisers, and perform other such commendable and valuable activities. Their sole motivation comes from the goodness of their hearts.

What I'm talking about here is different. It has to do what is often called civic duty, which is shorthand for the obligatory requirements of citizenship. Yes, there are some so-called "duties" that appear to be voluntary, but I want to start with the ones that are more obviously obligatory in order to emphasize what we often don't want to admit: the civil compact that protects us from chaos requires compulsion in order to enable its very existence. If there are to be laws, the laws must be enforced. If there are to be chosen leaders, there must be a system of choosing them, and once chosen, their authority must be duly respected. If there are to be revenues, taxes must be paid. If there are to be trials by jury, juries must be chosen. If there is to be civil defense, some sort of defense force must be raised and maintained.

"Must be done," however, is a passive formulation. Must be done by whom? Who is the agent of this doing? In classic political theory, the active agent is -- must be -- the citizen. It isn't stuffy pedantry to remember that civic theory derives from the practice of city-states of yore -- the "civis" at the root of civic, civil, civilization, from which emerge the citizen: the denizen of the city.

The uber-citizens of all time have to have been the ancient Athenians, the citizens of which practiced a radical democracy in which the "demos" -- the citizens -- were the legislators, the judges, the juries, the executives, the police, and the army. Next came Rome, the locus classicus of republicanism: the mix of institutions with distributed authority resting on the will of the citizenry. There followed the city-states of Renaissance Italy -- primarily Florence and Venice -- whose histories further sharpened the civic understanding of the men who founded the USA.

Lest we forget, the creation of a constitutional USA was itself a revolutionary act in the history of the world, a fact of which the founders were well aware. In studying the past, they knew the limitations of previous governmental models: Athens, Rome, Venice, and parliamentary Great Britain (which they knew best) had all yielded to the temptation of empire as a device to avoid paying their own way, only to bring ruin to their liberties. In this regard, the founders saw Switzerland as an example to follow, not only for its democratic self-defense by means of a popular militia, but also for its virtuous avoidance of imperialism.

One common thread runs through the examples that led up to America: civic virtue is not a miasmic, notional "belief system." Only through practice can it be achieved. It is not a right to be claimed from time to time. It is an obligation, a duty. It was understood that the state could compel such duty because everyone believed that it was only through unified performance that a republic could be preserved. Who wants to fight and risk being killed? Anyone? But the future absolutely depended on it. The shared burden of the state-enforced obligation watered the seeds of virtue.

One thing that very much worried the founders was whether and how civic virtue could be cultivated and maintained in a republic as large as the United States -- and remember, this was when it was only the original coastal states, and the trans-Appalachian region was the wild west. It was finally agreed that the states -- both the existing ones and any to be admitted in the future -- would be the laboratories for the continuation of civic virtue.

Then came the great withering. The starkest example is provided by the sad history of the militia.  Originally defined by statute as obligatory, universal service by adult males according to a discipline established by Congress, the state militias were intended to be a great reservoir of public defense that would obviate any dependence on a standing army; they would also form the backbone of the police power in counties and cities. By the mid-1830's the notion that this should be a universal obligation had faded to such a degree that it was invisible to de Tocqueville, the French observer who decided that the genius of American democracy lay in free association and voluntarism.

The current state of the original intention vis-a-vis the militia is almost laughable. A close family member who is a public attorney can only refer to it as "arcane." As much as we may respect the volunteers who serve in our National Guard (the current "well-regulated militia") or careerist police officers -- whose admirable motto in my county is "citizens serving citizens" -- it is painfully obvious that, in the matter of the common defense, we are as far away from the intent of the founders as it is possible to be. This carries with it such pathologies as a popular understanding of the 2nd Amendment that would make an anarchist swoon with admiration.

Another factor contributing to the disappearance of any sense of small-r "republican" obligations has been the expansion of suffrage and of free speech. This -- while manifestly and hugely admirable in and of itself -- has further pumped up the notion that rights form the only real basis for citizenship. This was mostly because the sense of universal obligation had already disappeared. But whatever undercurrent remained militated against its revival: Adult white males having abrogated "universality" only to themselves in the first place, they weren't about to weaken their own grip on things by insisting on the service of the new citizens -- black males first, and then women.

The long and short of it is that the states have failed in their federalist assignment to cultivate a sense of republican duty. They have proven to be only spasmodically interested in cultivating anything other than the most basic, absolutely-necessary civil obligations. Jury duty is still obligatory, but it is uncommon: 538 cites data showing only 27% of Americans serve on a jury at some point in their lives. (I've served three times.) Voluntarism provided state governments with an easy way to avoid their own job of assuring the continuation of universal duties. And now state governments are the absolute worst conspirators against the franchise (the vote) itself. They spend more time in figuring out how to get certain groups of citizens *not* to vote than in doing their republican job of insisting that they do.

An ironic exception is education. Which is pretty clever when you think about it: You can make schooling compulsory, but you can't oblige anyone actually to learn. You can be offered civics in school, not learn it, and then go on to an adult world that carries with it no obligation to apply it except in its most unpleasant form: paying taxes. Is it any wonder that our civic garden has become mostly invasive weeds, one nefarious variety of which recently came close to choking off the basic, constitutional process of ratifying a presidential election? If we are to keep that republican garden, we had better cultivate those seeds of republican virtue. There is no choice.

And yet ... there's a reason this blog is called "Follies." Give me some arcana with extra cheese.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Swealed in a barrie an liggin intil a heck

  I've never much been one for dialect writing: the way some authors try to render speech phonetically, particularly when it's used to heighten the freakshow exoticness of a speaker with a vernacular other than standard English (such as Gullah, French Creole, or Appalachian mountaineer). My attitude is colored by the reaction of one of Horace Kephart's Smoky Mountain neighbors upon seeing printed "hillbilly" speech, as rendered by John Fox of Trail of the Lonesome Pine fame. Here is Kephart’s account:

    One day I handed a volume of John Fox's stories to a neighbor and asked him to read it, being curious to learn how those vivid pictures of mountain life would impress one who was born and bred in the same atmosphere. He scanned a few lines of the dialogue, then suddenly stared at me in amazement.

"What's the matter with it?" I asked, wondering what he could have found to startle him at the very beginning of the story.

"Why, that feller don't know how to spell!" [italics in original]

Gravely, I explained that dialect must be spelled as it is pronounced, so far as     possible, or the life and savor of it would be lost. But it was of no use. My friend was outraged. "That tale-teller then is jest makin' fun of the mountain people by misspelling' our talk. You educated folks don't spell your own words the way you say them."

Kephart acknowledges this as "a most palpable hit" that gave him a "new point of view," even if it didn't prevent him from going ahead and misspelling mountain talk. In fact, the account is the very opening of the chapter entitled "The Mountain Dialect" in Kephart's classic Our Southern Highlanders.

The problem with the novelists like Fox and others -- among them Mark Twain, George Washington Cable (whose New Orleans Creole characters "toke lak theez") and of course Joel Chandler Harris of "Bre'er Rabbit" fame -- is that they are outsiders panning linguistic curiosity for publishing gold. In some cases they purport "scholarship," there is never an acknowledgment of a debt. It's high-toned circus barking.

However, when it comes to reading dialect, I do make one exception: Scots. And that is because its literary purveyors -- Robert Burns, George MacDonald -- are themselves Scots. It is their own native vernacular that they are rendering, not anything outlandish (c'mon, groan, fans of Outlander). With the ethical ground thus cleared, the modes of appreciation are given free rein to enjoy it as much as any foreign language.

My principal way of enjoying foreign languages has always been through singing, and as I'm writing this in high Advent it seems appropriate to mention that most of the songs I know in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, or Macaroni (bilingual Latin-English) are Christmas carols culled from the official books of the Christmas Carol Canon (pictured here).

Regrettably, Scots is not well-represented in the Christmas Carol Canon. If it were competing in an EU Wassail Derby, Scots would finish so far behind other regional dialects such as Flemish or Catalan that it might almost be said not to be trying.

The reason is probably to be found in Reformed theology, which particularly in Scotland reviled anything smacking of a popish "mass." With Christmas it's right there in the name; not much use trying to get around it. What the reformers objected to were the centuries of cultural encrustation. It was the Bible or nothing. This put an emphasis on Biblical text as the only true basis for religious observance. All else was suspect.

But there I have discovered a new music, as it were. It comes out of where poetic recitation is itself a form of music. Familiar passages of the Bible are chief among this kind of music, particularly (to me) the passages in the second chapter of Luke that describe the "adoration of the shepherds." I recently discovered it as it appears in the Scots Bible, and to me it is thrilling:

    Nou, i that same pairt the' war a when herds bid in the rout on the hill and keepin gaird owre their hirsel at nicht. Suddent an angel o the Lord cam an stuid afore them, an the glorie o the Lord shined about them, an they war uncolie frichtit. But the angel said tae them: "Binna nane afeared: I bring ye guid news o gryte blytheness for the haill fowk -- this day in Dauvit's Toun a sauviour hes been born til ye, Christ, the Lord! This gate ye s'ken it is een as I say: ye will finnd a new-born bairn swealed in a barrie an liggin intil a heck."

    Syne in a gliff an unco thrang o the airmies of heiven kythed aside the angel, giein laud tae God an liltin: "Glore tae God in the heicht o heiven, and peace on the yird tae men he delytes in!"

    Whan the angels quat them and gaed back til heiven, the herds said til ither, "Come, lat us gang owre-bye tae Bethlehem an see this unco at the Lord hes made kent til us." Sae they hid owre tae Bethlehem what they coud drive, an faund Mary an Joseph there wi the new-born babe liggin intil the heck; an whan they say him, they loot fowk ken what hed been said tae them anent the bairn. Aabodie ferliet tae hear what the herds tauld them, but Mary keepit aa thir things lown an cuist them throu her mind her lane. Syne the herds gaid back tae their hirsel, praisin an ruisin God for aa at they hed hard an seen; aathing hed been een as they war tauld.

    Behind the appreciation of this is of course the familiarity of the passage in King James English. What  a delicious, savory contrast between "baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying a manger" and "bairn swealed in a barrie and liggin intil a heck."

    Mythical shepherds for the shepherding: The Scots have been among the world's chief pastoral peoples. Famously, their sonic identity attaches to the chief instrument of pastoral peoples, the bagpipe. But judging from the extant, seasonal music associated with the instrument, Christmas pipes are for the most part continental: Italian, Provençal, German, Polish: all those minority dudelsacks, cornemuses, and zampgnas that any other time of the year get short shrift in the public imagination of bagpipes.

    The only remedy for any Christmas-loving Highland piper is to ran(dudel)sack the canon, an appropriately military-sounding activity for everyone's favorite musical weapon. Where the tunes don't "work," bend them to the instrument's will. The First Nowell doesn't "work" on the bagpipe's scale, because the instrument's "ti" absolutely refuses to toe the line. The bagpipe is going to do what it's going to do. But how else to participate in all that liltin o the unco thrang o the airmies of heaven?

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Deaf Diary

I don't know who needs to hear this,  but I'm really quite deaf.

Get it? Hear. Deaf. Haha.

It's not as bad for me as it might be for other people, because I grew up "hard of hearing." I'm well prepared for the daily embarrassment that accompanies the failure to interpret the sounds that come out of other people's mouths, along with the ensuing struggle to get to a sense of what is actually being said.

It's work. It helps unimaginably to "read lips." So what happens when we have to "wear masks"? Zoom and gloom.

E.g. a masked woman checker is telling my masked wife something, and the masked me (complete with hearing aids) has no idea what she's talking about, but it's something about the upcoming holidays, and there's something in it that sounds funny, so I'm smiling as hard as I can. Out in the parking lot my wife tells me how the checker was talking about losing her job up in Boston and being forced to move and not being sure that there'll be anything for her kids under the Christmas tree. It horrifies me that what the woman said registered with me as funny. Thank God my smiling was concealed by my mask. I hate them anyway.

E.g. 2 the family zoom. No masks! But there are micro-second time lags, ambient reverberation, and shifts from speaker to speaker that dizzy me: whose lips do I read? What I do hear at one point is one dear nephew talking about how he'd just "quit his God," and this is a family that does not do that, but there's everybody nodding and smiling! It turns out (as you probably have guessed by now) that my nephew's announcement was that he had just quit his job, and for very positive and commendable reasons, thus the nodding and smiling.

It can be funny in an absurd kind of way.

These kinds of interactions are made more complex than they are for most people because of my hearing loss. But, as I said above, I'm prepared because I've lived with it to some degree since that long-ago time before the onset of memory when an ototoxic antibiotic started me on this road. Pity the poor person who has had perfect hearing for a long time and has to adjust to losing it.

Still, it's somewhat startling these days when I take out my hearing aids, and a smothering silence descends. It didn't used to be this way. Sure, my coping mechanisms are well-developed; they include excellent hearing aids and a wise audiologist. But the moments without hearing aids when I look at a grand-daughter and I can see that she is speaking to me, but I. Hear. Nothing. For a moment I'm staggered.

Naps are easy, though: Smothering silence is a good pillow.

Don't cry for me, Sergeant Tina.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Suffrage, by Ellen Carol Dubois

In the present climate of re-examining the appropriateness of certain types of monumental public art, one of the things that's said -- by way of arguing that those certain types of monumental art should remain -- is that the men in question "should be judged by the standards of their time," or some such variant of the sentiment that people in the past didn't have available to them the same ethical or moral norms that we have today, and thus can hardly be blamed for thinking, speaking, or acting outside of them.

We could let this slide by if -- let's say in the context of the mid-19th century -- we were talking about such scientific concepts as germ theory: there was no scientific knowledge available to contradict the firmly-held belief among Civil War battlefield surgeons that boils populating the site of a wound were filled with "noble pus" and therefore to be encouraged.

This is most emphatically not the case when it comes to human relations, particularly in the Christian West in any of the Anni Domini following 33 (or, ok, I'll give you up to 333). Either there is no man, woman, slave, Jew, or Greek, or there is. It seems to me that a lot of American history is spent saying that, regardless of how Jesus may have thought, we think differently -- or at least we act as if we think differently, with our absurd, Escherian upstairs/downstairs distribution of who is qualified to rule. Worse (for Americans) we can't even act as if we understand the sense of our own founding revelation (the Declaration of Independence) which essentially repeats the belief in universal human equality even if it puts it on a more agnostic plane better suited to the one that will finally reach germ theory.

The problem, then, is not lack of availability. It is, rather, that Thomas Jefferson cannot actually take a piss without lifting the lid, even though he knows it's the right thing to do. Thomas Jefferson cannot do as Thomas Jefferson reasons. And this is the case even when there are people hollering that, in fact, up can be up!

In fact, of course, the problem is much worse, since so many people of influence and power don't even rise to the level of hypocrisy. They use might to defy right and manufacture patriotic bunting, theological apologesis, and pseudo-science to disguise demonic actions that some explainers fob off as "the law of the jungle," but which would horrify a baboon.

All this is by way of saying that Suffrage: Women's Long Battle for the Vote by Ellen Carol Dubois should be on every American's bookstand in this month of the centennial of the 19th amendment. It is thrilling to read, particularly if, like me, you come into it with only the sketchiest knowledge of the history of the subject. Of particular interest to me were the ways in which the movement for woman suffrage interacted with the movement for Black (male) suffrage: the early unity between the two fractured and spun out into separate orbits as if by some peculiar physical law of American politics. Oh, and racism.

The overall impression, however, is that the women who dedicated their lives to this cause themselves caused the USA to bring itself into at least 51% better focus than it had been before. Moreover, they were forthright from the very outset in such a way that no one can say there was no sentiment available for changing the way things were.

This book's appendix includes the text of the movement's founding document, the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments written by a group of women including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and promulgated to the world after a 2-day meeting in Seneca Falls, NY. Says author Dubois, "News of a public protest meeting in favor of women's economic, civil, educational, and political rights went viral throughout New York state and into Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Cady Stanton and her sister organizers knew that what they were doing was unprecedented, but they did not anticipate the mean-spirited, demeaning ridicule that came down on them, drawing on every possible negative stereotype of manly women and effeminate men. The women were called 'Amazons,' their dignified proceedings 'A Petticoat Revolution.'"

But the genius of the Declaration of Sentiments is that its style, organization, and even verbiage all derive from the Declaration of Independence. It both stakes out the high ground and takes it. The old standard thus becomes the new standard, easily available to everyone who subscribed to the old one.

From there -- in a dramatic story well told by this book -- followed a cloud of dedicated witnesses to see its suffrage aspect, at least, to fruition some 72 years later. For such Amazons we should be ever grateful, especially given that so many American males still cannot be brought to lift the damn lid before they piss, not to mention wear a mask for the safety of others.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

No flag waiver

In her apparent bid to become the standard-bearer of the Trump legacy, former SC governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley has chosen a likely banner: the Confederate flag. In a widely-reported radio interview with Glenn Beck, she stood up for the flag as a symbol of "service, sacrifice, and heritage" that race murderer Dylann Roof had "hijacked." In the wake of backlash provoked by the interview, Haley wrote an op-ed column in the Washington Post to clarify her remarks, saying that they are consistent with what she has always said.

She is wrong. What she did not do in the Beck interview that she did do after the Charleston massacre was also to say that "for many others … the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past." This omission is a clear sign that she is staking her political future on the rose-colored-glasses view of the Confederate flag and leaving out the rest.

This view represents as much a hijacking as any. It willfully refuses to engage the subject of slavery. Rather, it trades in an incomplete rendering of history for the sake of a sentimental, modernist, anachronistic re-ordering of values: we prize the timeless battlefield valor of our Confederate ancestors, but must never discuss their beliefs regarding the enslavement of Africans.

The so-called "Confederate flag" is not alone in this. The star-spangled banner is not without its own problems that arise when reverence promotes ignorance. It should be the case in a country with "freedom of speech" encoded in its Constitution that an unvarnished, warts-and-all history is to be preferred to a perfectionist mythology that faints before cross-examination quicker than a Southern belle with the vapors. This is particularly true at a time when the future of the country depends on real -- not symbolic or superficial, but actual -- racial reconciliation.

It would be a step in the right direction if Southern "heritagists" stopped tiptoeing around the subject of race-based, African slavery and admitted that -- regardless of who was to blame for its beginnings and its spread, and regardless of the way in which its social and psychological impact continued to be felt after its abolition -- African slavery was the institution around which the Confederate States of America was formed.

By the national power invested in it, the assembly embodying the CSA endowed certain designs to be flown on flags in order to personify -- the word is not too strong -- the principles that bound the nation together and gave it meaning. The only way to understand the meaning of the Confederate flag is to understand the meaning of the Confederate States of America. 

The CSA was not about grits and biscuits or whatever passes for "Southern heritage" these days. It was about the enslavement of African-Americans. No slavery, no CSA. States' rights? The most ardent advocates of states' rights before the 1860 election were the Northern states complaining about the federal Fugitive Slave Law. Where were the Southern states' rightists then? Advocating for vigorous federal enforcement, that's where.

The core meaning of the CSA -- the thing that brought it to life -- was one thing and one thing only: the enslavement of people with African ancestry. Following the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the perceived need for governmental protection of the institution is what drove the first wave of secession in the deep South. Yes, Lincoln's post-secession call for volunteers to enforce union pushed the upper South (and people like Robert E. Lee) over the edge. However, by that time the CSA was already there. Those johnny-reb-come-latelies signed on to defend a purpose that already existed: a nation founded on slavery.

It is bracing to read the full-throated defenses of slavery that resounded throughout the South in those days, and that tend to get covered up by today's Confederate apologists. For example: I recently read The Pride of the Confederate Artillery: The Washington Artillery in the Army of Tennessee by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., which I enjoyed for strictly private, genealogical reasons: one of the heroes of this battlefield history is my great-great grandfather's brother, Joseph A. Chalaron, who fought in every battle and campaign of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and who, though only a lieutenant, was its battlefield commander from Jonesboro until the end of the war. 

It is in every way an admirable book of military history, yet when it comes to assigning a reason why these men went to war, it stumbles. Leading up to the unit's departure from its home city of New Orleans, "war fever" and "southern patriotism" are the only descriptors to be found, until finally, the day before they are entrained northward (destination: Shiloh), the unit gathers in the First Presbyterian Church to hear Dr. Benjamin Palmer, "a strong antislavery spokesman but a passionate secessionist," exhort them to return their obligation to Tennessee, which had rescued New Orleans during the "last war," and assure them that their cause was just, as it was "purely defensive."

Cheairs's footnotes don't clarify where he came up with the idea that Benjamin Palmer was a "strong antislavery spokesman." One of the South's most prominent preachers during the Civil War, Palmer -- a proud native of South Carolina who never seems to have tired of telling people that -- was apparently a lifelong believer in slavery, as the most recent biographical treatment of Palmer makes abundantly clear.

Cheairs is correct, however, as to Palmer's passion as a secessionist. Such was his passion that Palmer -- on the Thanksgiving after the election of Lincoln, and departing from his habitual reluctance to mix politics with his pastoral duties -- delivered a sermon that, widely printed and circulated throughout the South, served to promote the cause of secession by justifying it as a necessary step.

What was that justification? Every nation -- every people -- has a character, Palmer says in the sermon, and along with that character has received a trust providentially committed to it. The South is such a people, and its "providential trust" is "to conserve and perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing." [Emphasis his, not mine; maybe this was a cue to thump the pulpit.] in the face of the advent to power of a Northern party whose abolitionist spirit is "undeniably atheistic" and whose platform of restricting slavery to the Southern states "is as big as the belly of the Trojan horse which laid the city of Priam in ruins," it is only "self-preservation" for the Southern people to form "a union of the South in defence of her chartered rights." Palmer delivers a ringing challenge to his listeners: "What say you to this, to whom this great providential trust of conserving slavery is assigned? … [T]his is the historic moment when the fate of this institution hangs suspended in the balance. Decide either way, it is the moment of our destiny. … If the South bows before this throne, she accepts the decree of restriction and ultimate extinction."

Slavery, Palmer says, is who the South is: not only is the labor of a "tropical race" required to till the soil under a "tropical sun," but "the system is interwoven with our entire social fabric … it has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilization." As we today would say, the South was a slave culture. As for the slaves themselves, Palmer says, "we know that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless; and no calamity can befall them greater than the loss of that protection they enjoy under this patriarchal system." Freedom is something "they know not how to enjoy." All of this "binds upon us the providential duty of preserving the relation that we may save him from a doom worse than death."

In this sermon Palmer has laid out nothing less than the "one nation under God" of the Confederacy. What prevents us from seeing it? Our Southern ancestors were bullish on slavery not only as a positive good but as a sacred cause; they believed it to the very core of their being; and they fought under flags that exhorted them no less strongly than Palmer's rhetoric to defend a homeland providentially entrusted with the institution of slavery.

Widely reprinted in newspapers from Virginia to Texas and in pamphlet from throughout the country, the sermon's influence was such that, in the words of one contemporary, "it was found, after the delivery of his sermon, that the secession mania spread like fire in a prairie." After the war, curious Northerners visited New Orleans to see and hear "the big villain of the piece" hold forth in the very church where the "Thanksgiving Sermon" had been delivered.

It is puzzling to me that Hughes has chosen not to include any of this in his book about my ancestor's unit. Granted, his information about Palmer amounts to little more than a thumbnail sketch, but not only is it off the mark, it indulges in the familiar trope of self-defense that deflects from the underlying reality by masking it. What can one say? To cast my ancestor's cause in any light other than the actual one strikes me as disingenuous.

My ancestor shines forth in this book as a remarkably brave, valiant man who after the war devoted his life to securing the memory of his comrades, not only his fellows in the 5th co. of the Washington Artillery, but also In the Confederate Army as a whole. I am certain that he, residing as he does in the land of truth, would prefer that we understand him and his cause -- including its flag -- with unflinching and unapologetic honesty. I feel sure that he, as the honorable and dutiful person he manifestly was, would advise you not to fly the Confederate flag unless you make its cause your cause -- and that means the belief in an African race suited only for slavery.

It's possible, of course, that he would have advised against its use altogether, thus sharing Robert E. Lee's stance on the subject of remembrance. Lee's post-bellum attitude clearly disfavored monuments that would stoke regional antipathies. While supportive of efforts to provide for the interment of Confederate dead, he refused invitations to participate personally in any activities related to the late war, whether it be identification of war dead or education of war orphans. In a response to one such invitation (a "Gettysburg Identification Meeting") he wrote that the "wisest" course was "to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."

His administration of what is now Washington & Lee University was a study in the avoidance of Confederate symbology. This particular "heritage" was ignored after his death, however, when replicas of Confederate battle flags were allowed to hang in the university's "Lee Chapel." A 2014 decision by then-university-president Kenneth Ruscio to remove the flags from the chapel proved (predictably?) controversial. Among those who supported Ruscio's decision was Robert E. Lee !V, who wrote to him that Lee himself would never have approved of their use in the first place: "His actions during his five years as president of Washington College made it clear that he had put that chapter of his life behind him. It is also clear that he tried to help others do the same." Lee IV further stated that Ruscio's "returning of the actual battle flags to the Lee Chapel Museum" was "the ideal way to care for and study these important artifacts."

Anyone who defies Lee's wishes and flies a replica of one of those flags doesn't get to decide what it means. That was taken care of in 1861. All his personal ambivalence on the subject of slavery and his late coming to the Confederate side underscore the desperate wrestling with conscience that lay behind his bitter but final decision to throw in his lot with the Confederate States of America, a nation explicitly and unequivocally conceived in African slavery.

My ancestor's artillery unit having been a musical one, it can be little doubted that among the songs they sang was God Save the South, the closest thing to a real national anthem for the CSA, although little known today. Its lyrics include a proud affiliation with the rebel status of George Washington, especially proud for a unit that bore his name. They also would have sung the verse that runs, "War to the hilt, theirs be the guilt/Who fetter the free man to ransom the slave."

That free white men keeping the African slave fettered was the God-ordained, providential mission of the CSA is no less true for being incomprehensible to so many of the descendants of its warriors.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Mythified: Review of "Searching for Black Confederates" by Kevin Levin

Sometimes before writing a book review I will check Goodreads for ones already written -- I don't want to repeat what somebody's already said. In the case of Kevin Levin's Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth, I found a good example of the kind of reality that Levin (and we) must contend with when it comes to discussing the Civil War in a factual manner.

It was a "one-star" review that ran,"I’d give it Zero [sic] stars. Kevin Levin is not worthy of publishing anything. His bias against the South and Black Confederates is we’ll [sic] known. He is a huge hypocrite. Black union soldiers doing the same jobs as Black Confederates are considered soldiers. Not so the Black Confederates, he dismisses them with the same old rhetoric. Don’t waste your money supporting this book of fiction!"

Were Yankees every bit as racist as Confederates? Yes! Did they abuse the good faith and loyalty of the blacks helping them by limiting them for the most part to servile roles? Yes! However, Levin's book addresses a critical difference that comes through even in the wording of this scathing review: "Black union soldiers doing the same jobs as Black Confederates are considered soldiers." Notice that the reviewer doesn't call the "Black Confederates" soldiers. Why is that? At the heart of Levin's narrative (and research) is a clear definition: a soldier serves the state in an official capacity; records attest to his service in an organized unit that is supplied, officered, drilled, and paid as part of the armed forces.

What is abundantly clear from Levin's book is that the Union had such organized, official units filled with African-Americans. The Confederacy did not -- with a clarifying exception. Read on!

Moreover, despite the neo-Confederate reviewer's pained insinuation that black union soldiers only did the same jobs as blacks working for the Confederates, Levin demonstrates another thing beyond doubt: the black Union solders also fought in battle as official members of organized units. My emphasis, because -- c'mon guys, is it really that hard? This is a conception of soldiery so fundamental that one wonders why the neo-Confederates of the Sons of Confederate Veterans can't acknowledge it. Yes, blacks attached to Confederate units as manservants, teamsters, cooks, or musicians sometimes picked up rifles and shot Yankees; they manhandled cannon; some wore gray; but they never advanced into battle as full-fledged, registered, acknowledged, official members of any unit operating on behalf of the state. Whereas that did happen in the Union army. There is a clear distinction to be made, and that is the point of Levin's book.

Ironically, another review grades down Levin's book for bothering to take on the "risible" notion of black Confederate soldiers, saying Levin scores easy, "gotcha" points when what's needed is a serious study of what blacks actually did in the Confederate army, because it's obvious as hell they weren't soldiers. This reviewer probably doesn't live in the South, where mythical "heritage" trumps all and where wounded pride clouds judgment to the extent that risible notions are repeated as gospel truths. It is to Levin's credit that much of his book is taken up with the sources of that risible notion, especially his discussion of the stark differences between the Lost Cause myth of the noble slave following his master through the war and the current, neo-Confederate notion of the loyal slave willingly joining his white brothers in a defense of the homeland.

To me the most fascinating story in the book -- the one alluded to above about black Confederate regiments, and the one that should put paid to the notion of black Confederate soldiery -- is the account of the effort towards the end of the war actually to raise black Confederate formations. Patrick Cleburne, an Irish-born, non-slaveholding Confederate general, proposed the idea in early 1864, but his superior Joe Johnston shut down any further discussion of the idea. Finally, in January, 1865, with the Confederacy facing the void, Robert E. Lee came out in favor of the idea of enlisting black soldiers -- to be granted freedom in exchange for service -- "without delay." The proposal was tweaked to allow for enlistment of free blacks only. Finally, in March, 1865 -- one month before Appomattox -- Richmond newspapers reported recruitment for a brigade. Some seventy men appear to have enlisted. They were in the process of learning the trained soldier's drill when Richmond fell and the effort -- along with the Confederacy -- subsequently collapsed.

Why should this not be the final word on the subject of black Confederate soldiers? What is it about the neo-Confederate psyche that cannot accept that a regime whose very cornerstone was African-American slavery refused until the bitter end even to contemplate African-American soldiery? That very refusal is eminently consistent with historical Confederate ideology. It flies in the face of reason not to accept it as reality.

If it makes neo-Confederates fell any better about things, Levin commits a howler of an error about the battle of Chickamauga. There, plain as day on page 37, he writes, "Union major general William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland proved victorious over General Braxton Bragg's Army of the Tennessee." Say what? The Confederates routed the Union army at Chickamauga and then besieged it inside Chattanooga. Neo-Confederates get to keep their victories. Those realities can't be gainsaid. Why bother with gaudy and untrue embellishments?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pyramid of hobbits: "The Secret of Our Success" by Joseph Henrich

"Slow down," I tell my imagination while reading this book when my mind takes off on a wild tear about the near-future genetic implications of current mind-bending cultural forces, like maybe political rule by tech-savvy children educated more by their online peers than by society. "Evolution," I tell myself, "takes a long time."

Only maybe not as long as we've thought. One of the arguments in this book is that the reinforcement of differential cultural adaptations through interactive learning in human societies can be so strong that one potential result is adaptive change at the physical level that comes faster than would be the case if the adaptation were left to the force its way up through chance mutations at the individual level.

"Survival of the fittest" for humans, then, in Henrich's formulation, becomes more a matter of social than individual adaptation, and -- significantly -- cultural responses to environmental challenges have replaced physical speciation as the basic evolutionary delineator among people. For example, ants "capture an equivalent biomass" as humans, but in doing so have split off into 14,000 species, whereas humans have only one hugely diversified and in some cases mutually unrecognizable species.

This is bad news for survivalists. Stock up on food and ammo and pimp your bunker all you want: you won't have a chance against a determined tribe of post-apocalyptic, acorn-eating sling shooters who teach their children well (whether or not they sing Neil Young).

The book will undoubtedly stimulate a fair amount of academic nit-picking -- as befits primates -- and parsing the arguments between "we were social because we evolved social skills" and "we evolved social skills because we were social" will necessarily provoke a clash of specialists. Suffice it to say for the sake of my own understanding that Henrich -- in the process of trying to determine at what point humans "crossed the Rubicon" and became a "new kind of animal" that passed down "toolkits" from generation to generation -- posits a "culture-gene co-evolutionary duet" between the discovery of tools and the ability to "reverse engineer" them through "causal models" that were then handed down. He concludes that, yes, humans are smart, but they aren't as smart alone in the wild as other species; rather, their smartness lies in the enduring, value-added smartness of their associativeness. Humans are smart "not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits."

Knowing that past scientists have produced intellectual models of human differences that have proven to be enormously deleterious, I approached the book with caution, wondering how Henrich would come out on the subject of race. Thankfully he confronts the issue explicitly early on in the book with a subsection ("Genes and Races," pp. 94 - 96) in which he says that not only do the traditional racial distinctions tell us nothing about genetic differences, they tell us less than nothing, i.e. they "distort" the genetic facts: "Our understanding of human genetic variation,"he writes, "derived from studying actual genes, completely dismantles any remaining shreds of the old racial notions." As for race prejudice, Henrich counsels awareness by making it itself a subject for study: why do we have a tendency to think stereotypically? The section concludes with a resounding, familiar-sounding declaration: "These insights will continue to fuel the spread of a new social construct: the view that all people, and perhaps some other species as well, are endowed with certain inalienable rights -- we call these human rights [emphasis Henrich's]. No new facts about genes, biology, or culture can alienate a person from these rights."

Most of the fun of this book stems from its broad presentation of human responses to environmental challenges. Technology (the bow and arrow for example ) can be won and lost and won again, depending on the ability of groups to carry it forward: sudden, large losses of population due to environmental disasters or disease have had the capacity to remove skills previously acquired from the toolkit transmitted to survivors. (I  think here about the baroque recorder, the ability to play which was lost for generations and had to be re-learned. Surely this was not just so that elementary music teachers could experience truly unbearable noise? There has to be a better reason.) What people have done over the millennia to make foodstuffs more nutritious or even just edible -- adding burnt sea shells to maize; the evolved capacity to digest milk after infancy, which is still a "natural" capacity in a fraction of humans and the lack of which seems in some cases to be linked to the development of cheese, with its much lower level of lactose -- beggars the imagination.

Which, thus, easily imagines a society in which learning has been accelerated to the point that nimble-minded children engineer changes, both technical and social, that enable them to become  political rulers through the weaponized use of baroque recorders ("Please! Stop! Anything! OK! OK! No more electoral college!"). Surely that's not all that implausible, given the starting point of a large pyramid of hobbits. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Ain't no crossroads in a rhododendron hell: The dilemma of Appalachian Studies

Can I be an indigene? Pretty pretty please? These days that's all I want to be: an indigene, rooted and tuted. I want to identify, and distant genealogical connections to various old countries have attenuated too badly in the American melting pot treatment for any of those affiliations to feel binding. Sure, I love to play the bagpipes and can claim a Scottish connection (by way of Nova Scotia), but only cultural sentiment elevates it over, let's say, the strain of Dutchness in me that goes all the way back to Pieter Stuyvesant. Then there's the Creole French and the Irish grandfather also clamoring for representation. That's enough hyphenation to make anybody hyperventilate.

Ah, to be an indigene! To have identification conferred as a birthright according to where you were born, and not according to your ancestry. It would make things so much easier: one is only born in one place. The result would be not so much birthright citizenship as birthright tribal status. Well, it turns out that I am an indigene. By virtue of the place of my birth I'm apparently a full-fledged member of the tribe of Appalachians.

At least that's what it says in the first chapter of Studying Appalachian Studies (University of Illinois Press, 2015), supplied by the book's editors Berry, Obermiller, and Scott: "Many key figures in the academic institutionalization of Appalachian studies were natives of the region. In this sense, Appalachian studies was 'indigenized' rather early in its development."

Praise Mt. Katahdin! I have for a long time hoped to qualify as an Appalachian, but it always felt presumptuous, because even though I play the lap dulcimer, have spent a lot of time following blazes on the Appalachian Trail, and played as a kid on top of the Cumberland escarpment a stone's throw away from Emma Bell Miles's farm, I also grew up in suburbia playing classical music instead of bluegrass, was destined to get a college education because the other damn Dutch side of my family had been doing that for at least four generations already, and as for religion, my raising wasn't so much "none" as "are you kidding?" Somehow those always seemed to be disqualifying factors, but, hey, not to worry: Berry Obermiller Scott say "the majority of 'native' Appalachianists are white and educated, and many come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds."

It seems too easy, somehow, like I've crashed a wedding and made off with the bride. Also, to be honest, it takes my breath away that Berry Obermiller Scott bestow the title of "indigenous Appalachian" to everyone born into the region because there's a certain, er, removal of the traditional distinguishing feature of the word that connotes native Americans, a group that the editors themselves and others in their fine collection say has been slighted by Appalachian studies. I myself wouldn't be prone to taking such a drastic step as they.

But on the other hand I'm not one to turn down a free pass to membership in a nouveau tribe. Not without a scrap, anyway. After all, I'm a mis-educated hillbilly born and phrased and re-phrased by "on the other hand" and all manner of shenanigasuistry. You have to prove the spirit. Skepticism is just a safer form of snake-handling.

And Eden is known for nothing if not snakes. This is obvious when, immediately after ushering the educated middle- and upper-class academic wannabes into Appalachia, Berry Obermiller Scott cough into their collective sleeve: "When Appalachianists do not conform to stereotypical constructions of Appalachians, they may be regarded as 'inauthentic' or 'outsiders' both by Appalachian natives and by those from outside the region."

So, trouble in the garden, I guess. Hell, the garden was made for trouble. Damn. Just when I thought I might get to wear that "indigene" merit badge, it gets snatched away from me all because of a little damn mis-education and a daddy with a desk job at TVA.

So, what's it going to be? Am I an indigene or not? Who's an  "authentic" Appalachian? And who gets to say?

Insofar as Studying Appalachian Studies can help answer those questions, it does so by presenting a history and critique of an academic discipline that purports to be one of many "area studies" like New West (US) and Pacific Islands studies.  (To be completely accurate, their definition of "area studies" also includes the non-geography-based areas Women's and African-American studies.) The practitioners are the "-ists" who devote their lives to the study of the culture, economy, history, etc., of the region. If anyone should be able to answer my questions, shouldn't it be the people who fill the pages of scholarly journals with regional studies and who wrote the encyclopedia of the region?

It might seem so, and yet a recurring refrain of this book is that the field in general -- much to the dismay of the contributors -- is stuck in a state of mind that effectively denies "authentic" status to entire groups of people who "do not conform to stereotypical constructions of Appalachians," primarily women, African-Americans, LGBT folk, and the people formerly known as, um, indigenes.

Importantly, the term used by several of the book's scholars is not  "state of mind," but "paradigm," so as to link the exercise to the ruling abstraction in understanding the formatting of knowledge, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, from which the concept comes, and from which also comes the corollary that said revolutions in structured thought occur when paradigms "shift." The Appalachianists in this volume concur that it is time for their field to experience such a shift.

If I were a revolutionary, I'd go with something stronger for my placard than "Paradigm Shift NOW!" The irony of the situation for Appalachian Studies is that its beginnings came in a much headier time than now, when actual revolution was more than just a whisper in the air conditioning of a conference room. I would give one of my Mize dulcimers for the chance to have been at the Big Bang of An Appalachian Studies That Almost Wasn't: the conference in 1970 at Clinch Valley College in Wise, VA, that pitted political activists against scholars and blew things up so bad -- and at the very outset -- that the Appalachian universe couldn't find gravitas until 1976, by which time mortgages seem to have cooled the activists into academicians. Thus does revolution become paradigm shift.

The paradigm that eventuated was this, according to Berry Obermiller Scott: Appalachian Studies "emerged … from an interdisciplinary/activist engagement with political and economic development strategies that sought to explain and intervene in regional economic development. At its birth in the 1970s, Appalachian studies was influenced by the world systems theory of global capitalist developments. Rather than emerging as a response to a single historical paradigm, Appalachian studies was the 'academic wing' of a broader regional reaction to hegemonic government- and corporate-sponsored economic development initiatives."

The "paradigm" in there is less than clear -- "reaction" is more the operative word -- so it isn't until the second chapter, "Representing Appalachia: The Impossible Necessity of Appalachian Studies," that Women's studies scholar Barbara Ellen Smith directly addresses and clarifies the nature of Appalachian Studies paradigm(s). Defining the paradigm within any field as that which "set[s] the terms of its scholarship," Smith describes the above-mentioned "birth" of Appalachian Studies -- "with its broadside attacks on the tradition of condescending and victim-blaming cultural explanations for regional dispossession" -- as an example of paradigm shift. She characterizes the resulting "dominant paradigms" as being the elevation of the "generic and seemingly self-evident categories" of "Appalachians" and "mountaineers" to a superior status that "overrides other forms of social identity," with the result that Appalachia became "an 'imagined community' of insiders, united by sameness."

It is now time, Smith says, for another paradigm shift, one that recognizes other aspects of identity. According to her, despite the fact that feminist, ethnic, and gender scholarship has peppered the paradigm for quite some time now with little effect, the primary reason for a shift has not so much to do with "our academic enterprise" as with "tectonic transformations in the region and the world." At a time when former adversaries have come together as "Friends of Coal," when the traditional bifurcation of male workplace and female household has been shattered, and when racism -- muted in the traditional mountain picture -- is now advanced as a political tool, it is time to replace "the unidimensional paradigm of mountaineer insiders pitted against venal 'outsiders.'"

Smith proceeds to elaborate her case that the dominant paradigms of Appalachian Studies all serve to "homogenize" the region, when what is needed is a regional representation that presents a more diverse tableau of the "human subjects of Appalachian studies." In so doing, she directly addresses a variant of my question about authenticity in a section titled "Whose Appalachia? Who is Appalachia?" What claim do out-migrants have to the identity? How about recent in-migrants from other regions of the U.S. or the world? How many residential generations back does it take to identify as an insider? Who adjudicates? She even asks, "What meaning does that term [Appalachian] possibly convey?"

In effect, Smith says, Appalachianists must confront "the ultimate impossibility of identifying fixed criteria, whether cultural traits, ancestry, or place attachment, that can separate the true Appalachian from everyone else." To say otherwise "presupposes not only that culture is static and lifeless but also that Appalachia is singular; that is, there is only one Appalachian culture (and, significantly, it tends to be deputed as rural and white). … In sum, paradigms that utilize cultural criteria to define the genuine Appalachian imagine a monolithic region; they tend to reduce its social complexity to a rural, white, place-attached mountaineer."

Within Appalachian Studies, the theory of Appalachia as an "internal colony" exacerbated this reductio, according to her, by compounding the notion of good insider vs. bad outsider. As Smith puts it, "Not all insiders to Appalachia are social equals, much less friends of social justice, nor are all outsider exploiters and reactionaries." She quotes fellow Appalachianist Dwight Billings: "The metaphor of Appalachia as a colony replaced that of Appalachia as a backward culture, but the mythical unity of the region and the homogeneity of its population remained largely unquestioned."

After decades of continued dominance, and still riding high, the original paradigm has produced an "essentialist" ideology that, according to Berry Obermiller Scott, "can result in overgeneralization, misattribution of causality, and the demonization of the 'other.' In that light, Appalachian studies needs to be careful to avoid the tendency to produce an identity politics based on exclusionary 'insider'/'outsider' dichotomies." In a separate chapter -- "Studying Appalachia: Critical Reflections" -- Obermiller and Scott carry this critique forward, citing Herbert Reid that insider/outsiderism is a "slag pile" polluting the scholastic landscape with a leachate that is "the tendency of some Appalachian studies scholars, artists, and activists to represent Appalachian communities in an ahistorical, idealized fashion that neglects political oppression and economy exploitation within the region's localities."

Well might these fine scholars rail against this downside, but after numerous scholastic cohorts since the 1970s, those "educated" in the insider/outsider dichotomy are now the dominant voices in what passes as Appalachian popular culture. One of the examples of how this has led to a blinkered, provincial, anti-intellectual attitude is the insistence on a "correct" pronunciation of Appalachia/Appalachian by prominent Appalachianists wielding great cultural and educational influence. I've written about this at length elsewhere (e.g. here here here and here) and don't want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that dislodging this form of political correctness will, for such as Berry Obermiller Scott, be an uphill fight. But after all, we're talking about mountains.

Or are we? To me one of the things worth thinking about in connection with Appalachian Studies is its cavalier attitude to geography. It calls itself an "area study" focusing on a region defined by Berry Obermiller Scott as "the Allegheny, Blue Ridge, and Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau, as well as the roughly twenty-five million people who live amid these mountains and valleys. In addition, Appalachian studies also embraces the millions of people who have migrated from the region but whose heritage has deep roots in the region."

Interestingly -- taking out for now the question of out-migration -- this definition of the region is the same as the Appalachian Regional Commission's (ARC), the Federal agency formed to combat poverty in the 1960s. Even more interestingly: according to Obermiller Scott, this definition of the region is another one of Reid's "slag piles." To Reid (via Obermiller Scott) the "uncritical adoption" of the Federal definition is "an indication that Appalachian studies has not escaped the hegemonic forces of the corporate state."

There are some ironies here. The Federal definition essentially papered over the older, mountain-centric one by including metropolitan areas; it had to do this in order to effect a policy of modernization that in part advanced a strategy of getting people out of the mountains into those more accessible (read urbanized) areas where development would be promoted. Where the primordial versions of Appalachian studies -- e.g. John C. Campbell's -- explicitly fixed its focus on mountain residents, the modernized, established version masked the distinction with the Federal definition and in doing so ushered the urbanites into Appalachia.

But somehow -- presumably to the chagrin of Berry Obermiller Scott -- the mountaineers not only persist, but they rule. Either their ghosts infest the discipline by haunting the insider/outsider dichotomy, or they peek through the work of naysayers like palimpsest: their book's third chapter, "Writing Appalachia," by Chris Green and Erica Abrams Locklear, is chock full of usages that treat "the mountains" as an exact synonym for Appalachia, e.g. its concluding distinction that, within the larger genre of Southern literature, Appalachian literature is "from and about the mountains."

This kind of dissonance is typical of the discipline because of its unwillingness to come to grips with a dilemma: once shorn of determinative characteristics, "Appalachian" starts to look pretty sheepish as an academic discipline. Those attributes that, once upon a time, were determinative in some way -- the mountaineer, the poverty, the coal -- are in the eyes of the paradigm shifters a kind of residue that needs to be cleaned away. If perhaps the paradigm has shifted and the shifters have won the field, it has been a pyrrhic victory: the work of debunking has emptied the "area" of any uniqueness whatsoever.

It has become a struggle over a brand: on the one hand the heritage actors -- the mountaineers, overalled but not overawed, speaking Elizabethan Ainglish with moonshine breath while clogging to banjo music at the mouth of the mine shaft before gittin' to feudin' with their first-cousin inlaws over the distribution of good ol' gal county teacher jobs -- and on the other the pointillist forces of globalized identity "solidarity" looking to bust up the stills of honky patriarchy in their own private Idaho.

But presumably everyone's saying "Appalachia" "right," so hey things could be worse.

Brands work like billboards. The brand is a created identity; it is designed to promote a product by evoking a positive, emotional response that at some future time will become a commercial transaction. In this case the future of the brand is at the mercy of the administrators of regional academic institutions whose bottom line is students. It is really no contest: administrators will overwhelmingly prefer the heritage actors, who will bring in students who have already conditioned by the insider/outsider dichotomy put out there in the popular culture by … the heritage actors. It's practically a feedback loop. The paradigm will not shift as desired by the authors of Studying Appalachian Studies as long as university administrators and their marketing departments have anything to do with it.

The field will be littered with "hands-on" courses whose instructors will do little, if any, of the activity regarded as central to the field of scholarship: writing or publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. The "interdisciplinary" aspect of Appalachian Studies so heavily touted by the authors of this book, while it may work to the benefit of the brand, also works to weaken the disciplines themselves, e.g. when it is manifested in the form of "Appalachian Music"  and "storytelling" courses that take place out on the Appalachian limb, entirely apart from the traditional music or literature programs. Why is this? Because the avenue of the raw material for those courses is presumably oral, which apparently means that its practitioners need not subject themselves to the confines of literacy. And this will be fine with administrators. Even better if it can be accomplished with part-time adjuncts requiring no benefits. Played right, Appalachian Studies can be a coal, er, gold mine for administrators.

That is not to say that there are not admirable scholars teaching some of these courses. It would be better, however, if they taught those courses within the framework of the traditional disciplines, where they would be freer to parse influences and look at the larger context rather than continue to push the commercialized paradigm in which Appalachian Studies is 30 banjoists gathered around a single microphone, because, you know, that's how they did it in the good ol' days.

Interestingly, a similar but openly-commercial effort to brand the Tri-Cities, TN, area where I live as the "Appalachian Highlands" received less than a glowing response from local citizens. It turns out that the tourism marketers lab-tested the proposed name among people who live in other parts of the country ("outsiders," as it were), and they responded to "Appalachian Highlands" as having positive connotations that would predispose them to visiting the area. After the idea was rolled out in Kingsport, however, the City Council wanted nothing to do with it; the Council's opinion was largely echoed in the letters to the editor of the local paper. Some people wanted no association with the negative stereotypes that in their minds went with "Appalachian," but a substantial number objected to the geographical illiteracy of the concept: whatever Kingsport might be, it ain't "highlands."

Also interestingly, in the middle of this a Facebook group launched called "The Holston Region." The timing was suspicious: it almost seemed as if the (non-academic) local historians primarily involved in the Facebook group were aiming a not-so-subtle jab at the marketers. In effect the group was saying, "If you look to history, here is the name of our region." And it is true: the general designations used in the past to refer to what was popularly known as the "overmountain" region invoked the names not of mountains but of rivers, because it was in the river valleys that settlement generally occurred. Even as of not too long ago, but pre-Federal-Appalachia, the widely-used descriptors for the upper South were river-based ones: Tennessee Valley, Shenandoah Valley, New River Valley, etc.

Along these lines, another aspect of the Appalachian reality that bears considering is that the towns -- as centers of learning, law, and culture -- were always held to be apart from the mountains. Thus you can read in an account of the Depression-Era establishment of the state theatre of Virginia -- the Barter Theatre -- in (relatively) small Abingdon that many of the early attendees brought the farm produce accepted for admission (actors gotta eat) in from Appalachia. Meanwhile, down the road in Bristol (a non-highland Tri-City), pre-big-bang-of-country-music, there wasn't an opry; there was an "opera house."

Then the mountains became cool. They got above their raisin'. They followed the money. They pushed the watersheds and the towns out of the geocultural terminological picture and set up their wannabe empire in the halls of academe. Was it pretension or chutzpah that led East Tennessee State University in Johnson City (also a non-highland Tri-City) to name its university archives "The Archives of Appalachia"? Wouldn't Appalachian State over in NC -- a school bearing the "Appalachian" name  since 1903 and genuinely located in the highlands -- seem to have a better claim to the name? Perhaps ASU can rest comfortably in the self-assurance of its university motto, "Esse quam videri": "To be, rather than to seem."

Maybe this wannabe indigene could adopt it. Probably not. I'm still unconvinced that I deserve whatever distinction the term bestows. Similarly with the title "Appalachianist." While I am convinced that Berry Obermiller Scott, Smith, Green, Locklear and all the rest who contributed to this valuable book are bonafide scholars whose labors deserve commendation and publicity, I find myself reluctant to allow them -- or myself -- to use this particular word as a label. The blithe manner in which they throw it around ignores the levels of connotative complexity that the word possesses. This careless attitude mirrors the arbitrary stance of the marketer rather than the respectful stance of the scholar. While this apparent lack of concern about the label might be explained as the residue of emotional identity issues arising from the creation of the field, to cling to a name whose working definition is derived from bureaucratic realpolitik rather than examined reality seems an odd strategy for scholars to take.

It is telling, for example, that (as reported by Green and Locklear) Kentucky poet Wendell Berry refused inclusion of his writing in Voices of the HIlls -- "perhaps the most influential collection of Appalachian literature" -- because he "did not consider himself Appalachian." Why was he even considered? Of course he's not Appalachian! This kind of seemingly uninformed grasping at territory by hugely informed people is exasperating.

Smith's "impossible necessity" is rather a "necessary impossibility": both surrender the capacity to make geographical distinctions and at the same time accept a parochial identity. For all the talk of shifting paradigms, Appalachian Studies is trapped in a rhododendron hell of its own choosing: with "Appalachia" as its badge, its practitioners will despite their best efforts never escape the insider/outsider dichotomy that gets deeper and thicker with each passing year as quasi-intellectual pop culture and university marketers feed its mythological roots.

"The path is made by walking," says the Antonio Machado poem that inspired the subtitle of this book. If Appalachian Studies is stuck in a rhododendron hell, the way forward will require not so much walking as strenuous contortion.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Hillbiliad: an odyssey

I realized something one day when I was downtown busking. On the sidewalk in one of the downtowns. Around here they are all small downtowns and people are as nice as they are suspicious that I might be a migrant on welfare siphoning off their SoshSecurity. Or worse, an atheist because I'm not playing bluegrass or rawk or singersongrotter.

What I realized, playing for lunch money, is that strip malls are windows on America's soul -- full of hope and dope and failure. They are built to fail. They always do; they have to; American capitalism depends on it: a steady churn of failure -- worshipped by tech-addled magimetricians as "creative destruction" -- that fuels mass migrations from one form of slavery or a-reasonable-facsimile-thereof to another (those poor symphony musicians). Who was it said money was the root of all evil? Whoever that girl was, she might've known a thing or two.

I also realized that I needed one for me, personally: a stake in a strip mall, in one of those boxes of silver-framed plate glass looking as anonymous as ancestors in a picture album: all those mom-and-popped, family-farmed, self-maidens that picked up and moved away somewhere to a doomtown monoculture that might last long enough to raze a family with scrip and liquor and asbestos siding. Almost heaven, east-by-god Pennsylvania I mean Tennessee I mean Texas I mean Oregon I mean Tennessee. Again. Bullseye on a map is whatever you hit.

Which is me, I'll admit it. What I hit is a mostly-always matter of chance: luck. Even knowing this, though, I always try to parse the more successful instances of luck into form. Bad idea. It doesn't work. I take good luck and turn it into bad form. It is a skill; one that I'm not proud of. It's that kind of skill that starts with Buddhism and winds up with Hello Kitty.

When I busk in the downtowns, there is always someone to laugh at the tootly toy I play. I laugh back and tell them I am the Yo-Yo Ma of the recorder: I have memorized all of the  J. S. Bach recorder sweets (that's how I spell what I say it because if you spell it the other way it's some kinda music publishing bullshit), and I will melt them in the air anywhere, at the drop of a hat trick. They say "do some tricks, then, yo-yo man" and drop in a quarter with a pitying, uncomprehending -- because it's not bluegrass or rawk or singersongrotter -- smile. Unless there's a five already in there: nothing kills charity quicker than parity, like that girl said. In which case they tell me to go back to Oregon and play with the whales. My answer is pat: "You mean Denmark" which makes for an even more uncomprehending smile.

There's a method to my rottenness: all these small downtowns in the very particular region where I busk are in the middle of a marketing meltdown. First off, what they don't tell you: They want people to come here and start African slavery all over again. But this time everybody can be an African (all lives matter), just the way Civil War re-enactors can be fat. Also do it with volunteers this time because it's Tennessee (a right-to-work-for-nothing state); in other words some reasonable facsimile called "brand enhancement" (nothing says "slavery" quite like "brand.").

Second, what they do tell you is that the marketers (nothing says "slavery" quite like "market") have decided on a subconsciously Dada-inspired configuration of anything inconceivable that conceivably could be Appalachia in the minds of people who know nothing about the, um, is it really a place? Just please no washing machines on the front porch.

So my actual first thought -- busking on the recorder in one of these downtowns -- was that Appalachia is just the down-country cousin to Scandinavia.

Hear me out: Log cabins come from Sweden and fiddles come from nyckelharpa and banjos come from a strung-out skinhead from Oslo who floated a Hillbiliad dragonship to Africa a long long time ago and picked 5-string symbolist poetry before reverting to Normandy and then marching to Zion to liberate it for "The Girl Who Didn't Like Money" (A Mountain Ballad). Plus: they had recorders down in Brasstown, NC, at the Campbell Folk School because? Duh: Denmark, where the folk school was born, had recorders in their folk schools. And like your girl used to say: Quod Erat Denmarkrandom.

I mean, it's geometry. It's also sausage, which right away linked me with the apple butter of my eye: the strip mall where I'm determined to dip my oar into the Slough of Despond along with all the other pioneers who insisted on Pilgrim's Progress as the only book to read besides the Bible. Inspiration? Please, no. It's entire randomness, meaning luck, and I'm parsing it big-time, because the medium is the method, as I think some girl said.

All of that realizing, on that recorder Büsker Dü-date, came down to: A store. In a strip mall. Just off the interstate, the this-land-is-your-land ribbon of highway teeming with the modern-day equivalent of cash-flush bushwhackers looking for a place to flush their cash but never could because it was all outhouses. But this Appalachia gonna flush, to wit, yo: Buddhism:Hello Kitty :: Appalachia:Greta Thunberg dragonship figureheads.

What were you expecting? Microplastic quilts? Roundup biscuits? Artisanal typhoid from a backyard spring? MAGA limberjacks? Dagnabbit, dragonship figureheads is whittling, for singing-high-and-lonesome out loud! Look, I just raked dry crackling leaves in 94 degree heat in October. You think we don't have something coming? Or maybe you're one of them waiting on the next ice age to kick in. In what? 3,000 years? So, just enough time to walk back civilization, right?

Sombeody's got to do something, and my strip mall outlet selling small-batch Greta Thunberg dragonship figureheads -- carved out of sustainably-harvested, downed timber and cleverly devised so as to conceal a storage compartment for a slim cigaret of high-grade Goosepimple Junction Kush (extra: address the blind tiger) -- will provide nothing less than a 21st c. equivalent of the Isle of Lewis whalebone ivory chesspieces:  miniature monuments to an uncertain future full of hope and dope and failure.

Bullseye on a map is whatever you hit.